Bill 95: The Québec government’s desire to allow access and optimal use of its data

On May 5, 2021, Éric Caire, Minister for Government Digital Transformation, introduced Bill 95, An Act to amend the Act respecting the governance and management of the information resources of public bodies and government enterprises and other legislative provisions.

The Bill aims to:

  1. Optimize the management of information resources and public services by promoting the sharing of expertise, information, systems, infrastructure and resources;
  2. ensure the adequate protection of the information resources of public bodies used to support the delivery of public services or the accomplishment of the government’s missions;
  3. establish optimal governance and management of government digital data to simplify access to public services by citizens and businesses, better support government action, increase the performance and resilience of public administration and improve the quality and protection of such data;
  4. coordinate the digital transformation initiatives of public bodies in order to offer fully digital public services.

The Act respecting the governance and management of the information resources of public bodies and government enterprises was adopted on June 13, 2011 and amended on March 7, 2018. It establishes a framework for the governance and management of information resources, that is applicable to departments and most public bodies.

Bill 95 therefore introduces a "new framework for managing" government digital data. It gives them great value as a "strategic information asset" whose "mobility and valorization" is in the government’s interest.  Any information held by a public body carried in a technological medium (excluding information under the control of a judicial tribunal or body exercising adjudicative functions; or information determined by government regulation, including information subject to a restriction on access under the Act respecting Access to documents held by public bodies and the Protection of personal information), is government digital data. In the case of personal information, the purpose for which it is to be used "must be in the public interest and for the benefit of the persons concerned."

In the world of research, this reform has long been desired, particularly by the Chief Scientist of Québec and the research funds for whom access to this data will be of great value.

To date, each department or agency is the custodian of the government data it holds. After Bill 95 comes into force, the government, on the joint recommendation of the President of the Conseil du trésor and the Minister responsible for the public body that holds the data concerned, may designate official sources of government digital data. However, the Minister of Health and Social Services will be responsible for designating the official sources of digital data when the data concerned are held by this Minister or a body reporting to his or her department. These official sources may, where necessary for administrative or public service purposes, collect, use and communicate digital data from and to public bodies, as well as collect information from any person, including personal information.

Administrative or public services purposes are any of the following :

  1. Optimization or simplification of services offered to citizens or enterprises;
  2. support for the various missions of the State, the provision of common services by more than one public body, or the carrying out of joint missions by more than one public body;
  3. performance of a mandate assigned under an Act or a government-wide initiative;
  4. planning, management, assessment or control of resources, programs or government services;
  5. production of information in support of the decision-making of a minister or the Government;
  6. verification of a person’s eligibility for a program or measure; or
  7. research and development.

Where the government digital data concerned include personal information, the purposes specified by the government must be in the public interest or for the benefit of the persons concerned. In such cases, the public body designated as the official source of government digital data must also assess privacy factors, establish governance rules for such information that must be approved by the Commission d’accès à l’information and submit to the Commission d’accès à l’information, on an annual basis, a report on personal information collected, used or disclosed.

The bill amends the specific regimes for the protection of information provided for in the Tax Administration Act, the Health Insurance Act and the Act respecting health services and social services, specifying that the information held may be released without the consent of the person concerned to an organization designated as an official source by the Agence du Revenu, the Régie de l’assurance maladie and an institution that provides health and social services.

To implement the new measures, the functions of Government Chief Information Security Officer, Government Chief Digital Transformation Officer and Government Digital Data Manager are created. These functions will be assumed by the Chief Information Officer. The Chief Information Officer will be responsible for formulating guidance on application, setting expectations, monitoring the implementation of statutory obligations, authorizing data mobility or enhancement, and requiring information or reports regarding their activities.

The Bill also creates the functions of Deputy Chief Information Security Officer and the Delegated Manager of Government Digital Data. The Government Digital Data Manager will have the option of mandating a public body to distribute open data or an open format dataset.  In such cases, the mandated public body acts as the official source of reference data and, as such, must disseminate the data on the Internet according to the terms and conditions determined by that manager. The terms and conditions may include data quality, required distribution formats, key elements to be documented or other compliance rules.

The tabling of Bill 95 reflects the government's desire to make more optimal use of government-held data in the public interest. Specific consultations and public hearings on Bill 95 were held on May 25 and 26, 2021. It resulted in discussions and questions (particularly from the Commission d’accès à l’information) on how to treat citizens' data in support of the government’s digital transformation. While this bill is primarily aimed at the public sector, there is reason to wonder about the role that the private sector could play in this vast digital transformation undertaking. In addition to the Commission d’accès à l’information, IT security and cybersecurity experts, research funds and technology experts took part in the consultations. Specific consultations were therefore an opportunity to examine, among other things, the contribution that the private sector can make and the benefits it can derive from this transformation.

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